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Bajrang's leg defence is not weak, it's just his style of play – Coach Sujeet Maan

Contrary to the popular opinion that Bajrang Punia’s leg defence is a major shortcoming in his game, Sujeet Maan, the new personal coach of the star grappler says the wrestler looks vulnerable only because of his attacking style and all he needs to do is to convert the moves into points. Bajrang’s leg defence has been a major talking point in the last three years, especially in run up to the Tokyo Games, where he won a bronze medal.

Bajrang’s struggle against Japanese nemesis Takuto Otoguro only accentuated the issue. His coach Shako Bentinidis also worked on the same but Bajrang, 28, never made the desired progress, something which irked the national federation and eventually the Georgian was removed from his support staff. However, Maan, who started working with Bajrang from January this year, says Bajrang’s leg defence is not as weak as it is thought of.

“A lot of people opine that his leg defence is weak but that’s not the case. It’s a style. In cricket, the aggressive batters go for their shots and in the process they run the risk of losing their wicket. In Bajrang’s case when he plays attacking game, he appears vulnerable in his leg defence,” Maan told PTI in an interview. “It’s not that we are not working on his leg defence. We are trying that even if the rivals get hold of his legs, he wriggles out of it with solid defence.”

One of the main reasons for his leg-defence struggle has been linked with his training and competition on the soil (dangal) in his formative years. The wrestlers usually adopt a high stance during ‘dangals’ but when it comes to competition on the mat, the strategy does not work. Many traditional wrestling stars like Jassa Patti, one of the famous and most successful dangal wrestlers in the country could not succeed on mat, struggling to win bouts even in National championships.

Maan agrees that the training and competition style in early years could be a reason for whatever issues he has in his leg defence. “On the mat you need to compete more on low and middle stance while in the Dangal, the wrestler maintains high stance. Habits are difficult to change, especially when it becomes muscle memory.” Maan said he has been a part of the national camp and has observed Bajrang’s game whenever he was there. He and Bajrang, recently, watched the wrestler’s bouts from the 2019 World Championship, 2018 Asian Games, the 2021 Asian Championship videos and he is sure that going forward, adding more aggression to his style should help him.

“He needs to be aggressive and attack more. Attack is the best defence. The change he needs to make is he should attack but must not end up losing points or fail to score despite taking the risk. “If he is managing to grab legs of his opponent, he must convert that move into points, that’s what we are working on,” Maan who won four Asian Championship medals, including a silver in 2004, said. Talk about the 2024 Paris Olympics and Maan quickly points that they “don’t have much time on our hands to prepare.” But why? “Asian Championships is approaching and then there is one Ranking Series event. In August we have CWG which will be followed by the Asian Games, so there is not much time that we have. We have short-term targets before the Paris Games.

“This year our main target is Asian Games and if we succeed it would mean that we are at peak.” Has anything changed in Bajrang’s training style since Bentinidis left? “I have devised a plan for him. When Bajrang is not competing, he is focussing on heavy training, including weights, long duration runs, power training and endurance training. When competition is near we are focussing on speed and bouts.” The Asian Championship, starting April 19 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, will be Bajrang’s first tournament after the Tokyo Games.

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